Cushing disease is a condition in which the pituitary gland releases too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The pituitary gland is an organ of the endocrine system.
Pituitary Cushing disease; ACTH-secreting adenoma
Cushing disease is caused by a tumor or excess growth (hyperplasia) of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is located just below the base of the brain. A type of pituitary tumor called an adenoma is the most common cause. An adenoma is a benign tumor (not a cancer).
With Cushing disease, the pituitary gland releases too much ACTH. ACTH stimulates production and release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Too much ACTH causes the adrenal glands to make too much cortisol.
Cortisol is normally released during stressful situations. It also has many other functions, including:
Symptoms of Cushing disease include:
Skin changes that are often seen include:
Muscle and bone changes include:
Women may have:
Men may have:
Other symptoms or problems may include:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical examination and ask about your symptoms.
Tests are done first to confirm there is too much cortisol in the body, and then to determine the cause.
These tests confirm too much cortisol:
These tests determine the cause:
Other tests that may be done include any of the following:
More than one screening test may be needed to diagnose Cushing disease. Your provider may ask you to see a doctor who specializes in pituitary diseases.
Treatment involves surgery to remove the pituitary tumor, if possible. After surgery, the pituitary gland may slowly start to work again and return to normal.
During the recovery process from surgery, you may need cortisol replacement treatments because the pituitary needs time to start making ACTH again.
Radiation treatment of the pituitary gland may also be used if the tumor is not completely removed.
If the tumor does not respond to surgery or radiation, you may need medicines to stop your body from making cortisol.
If these treatments are not successful, the adrenal glands may need to be removed to stop the high levels of cortisol from being produced. Removal of the adrenal glands can cause the pituitary tumor to get much bigger (Nelson syndrome).
Untreated, Cushing disease can cause severe illness, even death. Removal of the tumor may lead to full recovery, but the tumor can grow back.
Health problems that may result from Cushing disease include:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you develop symptoms of Cushing disease.
If you have had a pituitary tumor removed, call your provider if you have signs of complications, including signs that the tumor has returned.
Juszczak A, Morris DG, Grossman AB, Nieman LK. Cushing's syndrome. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 13.
Molitch ME. Anterior pituitary. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 224.
Stewart PM, Newell-Price JDC. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 15.
Review Date: 5/6/2019
Reviewed By: Brent Wisse, MD, board certified in Metabolism/Endocrinology, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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